Friday, May 8, 2015

May 10, 1955 (60 Years Ago): NL Race All But Over (Except for the Playing Out the Schedule Part)

The 1955 Dodgers' longest winning-streak of the season reached 11 games on May 10 when Don Newcombe shut out the Chicago Cubs, 3-0. It was only 24 games into the season, but the Dodgers already had a stunning 9-1/2-game lead with a 22-2 record. As it turned out, the NL pennant race was already over, because Brooklyn continued to play the best baseball in the league.

May 10, 1955: NL Race All But Over (Except for the Playing Out the Schedule Part)

The Brooklyn Dodgers were obviously not buying into the narrative that their failure to win the 1954 pennant after having won back-to-back in '52 and '53 was indicative of the "boys of summer"as Roger Kahn would later christen thembeing past their peak and on the down slide. When Newcombe took the mound at Wrigley Field on May 10, the Dodgers had lost only twice all year. 

Both losses were to the defending-champion New York Giants, who beat them 5-4 on April 22 and 11-10 in ten innings two days later. Those victories trimmed the Dodgers' lead on April 24 to 2-1/2 games over the second-place Milwaukee Braves. Since then, the Dodgers had won ten straight, the Braves were still second, but just one game over .500 at 12-11, and the Giants were in third, struggling to get untracked with an 11-11 record.

As hot as the Dodgers had been, Don Newcombe was still finding his footing in his second year back from two years as a US Army draft pick occasioned by the Korean War. Newcombe had an impressive 56-28 record and 3.39 career earned run average after three seasons when duty called, but struggled with a 9-8 record and 4.55 ERA in his first year back in 1954. Particularly with the Giants defending a championship and the Braves a fast-rising club, Brooklyn's prospects in 1955 were said to rest to a great extent on whether the power right-hander would recover his pre-military-draft excellence. 

So far, Newcombe had won two of his first three starts, which included a no-decision in the Dodgers' April 24 loss to the Giants, but he also had a less-than-ace-like 5.50 ERA. This was his first start since then, with his only appearance in the previous 15 days a victory in two innings out of the bullpen in an extra-inning game against the Phillies on May 6.

Newcombe was brilliant this day against the Cubs. Pitching his first shutout since the late September heat of the 1951 pennant race, Don Newcombe allowed the Cubs only one base runner while striking out six. Gene Baker's single up the middle in the fourth inning was the only hit Big Newk allowed. It was the second and last one-hitter of his career (he never pitched a no-no); Newcombe had one-hit the Pirates in June 1951, althoughlike in this onethere was no drama of flirting with a no-hitter because Ralph Kiner singled in the first inning. 

The Dodgers were an offensive juggernaut early in the 1955 season. Their three runs against the Cubs gave them 152 in the first 24 gamesby far the most in the major leagues. Even with Newcombe not pitching at his Newcombesque-best, at least until this game, the Dodgers had given up the far fewest runs in the National League, only 83. 

It may have been only 24 games into the seasonthere were still 130 remaining on the scheduleand the Dodgers' .917 winning percentage was certainly unsustainable for much longer. Their winning streak came to an end the next day and the Dodgers lost six of their next nine, which shaved three games off their lead.

But still, a 9-1/2-game lead so early was a huge deficit for would-be competitors to make up. The Braves ultimately finished second with 85 wins. The Dodgers could have had a losing 64-66 record the rest of the way and still finished first. 

Brooklyn's hot start did in fact basically settle things, and even with 84 percent of the schedule yet to be played after May 10, there would be no drama of a National League pennant race. The Dodgers did not let up. While they could not match their torrid start to the season, the played as the best team in the National League the rest of the way, with a record 3-1/2 games better than any other NL team in games played after May 10. 

The closest any team came to the Dodgers after May 10 was Chicago pulling within 5-1/2 games of Brooklyn on the last day of May. But nobody considered the Cubs a legitimate contender, and they ended up sixth with a losing record. After that slump in the standings, the Dodgers put the pennant race away for real by winning 10 of their next 11 to take a 10-1/2-game lead with a 42-12 record on June 11. They were still on a pace, more than a third-of-the-way through the season, to pass the 1906 Chicago Cubs' major league record of 116 wins in a single season. In the remaining 100 games they had left after that, Milwaukee would be one-game better, but Brooklyn's lead was never less than those 10-1/2 games.

Meanwhile, over in the American League, as predicted, a three-team race was developing. The Indians went into Yankee Stadium for a two-game set on May 10, a week after the teams had split two games in Cleveland. The Indians won, 9-6, even though their ace Bob Lemon did not pitch well in running his record to 6-1. The next day, a three-run fourth proved decisive in the Indians' 4-3 win over the Yankees.

The loss kept the Yankees in third place. They were now four games behind with a 14-10 record, which would turn out to be their biggest deficit of the season. The Indians, at 19-7, now led by three games over the second-place White Sox, which would turn out to be their biggest lead of the season.

After May 11, it was 24 games down for the Yankees and 130 to go.

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